Navan Surprises at the Willy Street Fair 9/20/2009

Navan_WillyStreet_2009Navan Surprises at the Willy Street Fair 9/20/2009

I planned my trip to the Willy Street Fair around the scheduled performances of Josh Harty and Blake Thomas.  I’d never seen either of them live and three birds (Harty, Thomas, and the Fair) with one stone was too good an opportunity to pass up.  Unfortunately, I was late for the Josh Harty Band performance at the WORT Underground Stage and only caught the final few songs.  Nonetheless, I was impressed with the little bit I heard.  Harty has a great voice that blends perfectly with Thomas’ rich backing and lead vocals.  He cued the band for each song’s changes and pulled off a fine and thoughtful guitar solo supported solidly by Thomas on bass and Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines of the Stellanovas on cello, lap steel, fiddle, and Gaines’ lovely harmony vocals.   I was disappointed I didn’t have a chance to see more and looked forward to the later show.

Josh Harty Band
Josh Harty Band

While waiting, I wandered out to the Fair’s perimeter where the Culture Stage stood.  Navan, a local Madison band I’d never heard of, was setting up on a stage devoid of instruments.  I don’t know who it was who said “I like a cappella music most when there are other instruments playing along”, but it’s a sentiment I understand completely.  I can take a barbershop quartet sound in very small doses. I am not particularly fond of The Nylons or Manhattan Transfer’s arrangements where each voice has its own distinct place in the mix.  I too often hear the strain of over-reaching arpeggios where they don’t belong in these kinds of vocal-only performances, so I found myself hanging back in the gathering crowd because I didn’t expect to stay long.

However, the four members of Navan, Sheila Shigley, Elizibeth Simcock, Paul Gorman, and Amy Curl grabbed me at the sound check and I couldn’t tear myself away.  With every song, Navan delivered compelling, beautiful, and lush harmonies that never once descended into vocal theatrics or Mr. Sandman-like ‘La-la-la’ gymnastics.  Prior to each song, Shigley, the group’s primary spokesperson, seemed to pull everyone back off the microphones in unison for a stand-up huddle as she found the starting point on her pitch pipe.  Then with no more than a quiet hum they’d each find their respective notes and push back into place to launch into yet another stunning and evocative number.

Gorman, dressed in black, stood stock-still and Simcock, next to him, hardly moved at the mic.  It was a really cool effect that pulled the viewer right in.  It was as though they refused to give it all away at once; like holding back just slightly allowed each part just enough room to generate its own energy to blend more effectively with the others.  Shigley and Curl, to Simcock’s right, had more animated delivery that was also fun to watch.

My only  complaint centers around song introductions.  Shigley began each song with a long pedagogical explanation of the genesis of the piece and how the lyrics translated.  It was simply unnecessary and, eventually, jarring and, dare I say it, dull.  These near-lectures interrupted the flow of an otherwise brilliant performance.  Navan’s delivery had such a visceral effect on this listener (Gorman’s sensational tenor caused my stomach to hum; and Simcock’s alto had the same effect on my chest), that knowing what it all meant within the context of Celtic and Western Civilization was simply irrelevant.

I couldn’t stay to the end of this intoxicating Navan performance however because I still wanted to see Blake Thomas on the MadFolk stage.  Still, I couldn’t drag myself away on time, and stayed long past Thomas’ start time.  And, coincidentally, while on the topic of intoxicating, I’m glad I did.  When I got there, he and Josh Harty were already on stage with their acoustic guitars and their beautiful voices and they both looked, and sounded, utterly drunk as they reached for their cans of Budweiser and swayed slightly on stage between songs.  Sloppy, off-key guitar solos; insider, private, unfunny jokes; glassy-eyed stage banter that started nowhere and ended up in the same place; and a seeming lack of familiarity with each other’s songs made for a startling transition from the sharp presence on the WORT stage less than two hours before, to this one.   It was so painful after just a few songs that I couldn’t bear to watch it.  I’ll try to catch up with those two some other time – after they’ve had a chance to sleep it off.

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